People sometimes asked Rick if he travelled for his work. It was a question he kept meaning to tuck away for use at the next barbecue with the neighbours, when he always struggled to come up with new small-talk prompts that he hadn’t used at the previous barbecue.
Yes, I do actually, thought Rick. Last week I was in Doncaster and Reading. The week before it was Slough and Swindon. I’m also often in Glasgow, Bromley and Hull. Rick travelled to clients and prospects, criss-crossing the country to lead workshops and support on pitches, to attend tissue meetings and wash-ups and beauty parades and blamestorms. As a result of all this, he spent a lot of time in trains, and had come to some fixed conclusions about London stations.
He was dutifully tolerant of Victoria and its eternal building works, as one might be of an elderly mother, since it was the London station of his childhood. He was as stupidly charmed as any tourist by the faux village set-up of Marylebone. He was warily amused by Liverpool Street, with its City sass and vim, like a dad with a boisterous teenage daughter who is on the verge of eluding him forever. He was bored by Waterloo, wilfully under-impressed by the new Kings Cross, but quietly amorous of bohemian St Pancras, with her pianos and her clandestine continental connections. He was intrigued by Fenchurch Street, station of mystery, since he had never been there.
But Paddington, brash and expansive and unhelpful, oppressed him. With its perverse signposting, its absence of sightlines, its long walks between connections, its barriers at the wrong end of platforms – with its refusal, in short, to act like a proper station, Paddington could fuck right off.
At the cafe where he chose to wait for his train, queue-forming protocols had become ambiguous. A pair of bridge-and-tunnel types — two middle-aged women with silk scarves and floral luggage — stood at right angles to Rick by the counter. They had clearly got there first, but to the untrained eye it might have seemed as if they had already been served, or as if Rick was trying to get in ahead of them. One of the women flashed Rick a look of such scandalised hatred that he fell in love with her at once. He flashed back a smile of exaggerated obeisance — offering a comedy medieval mime to indicate his deference to her and her friend’s advanced queue status and nobly refraining from pointing out their eccentric positioning, which to his mind had caused all the trouble in the first place – and began plotting ways to kill them with kindness.
But no. He would not go there; he was stressed enough about the day’s workshop already.
He took a deep breath. It was easy to forget that there were people who travelled by rail for the fun of it. On inter-city trains in the daytime, after all, the world of work ruled supreme. People marked their table-top territories with the full panoply of laptops and headphones, expensive travel mugs and stationery porn. As Rick walked through the carriages, he saw people casually parsing Rosetta-stone spreadsheets, constructing lengthy passive-aggressive emails with highly politicised uses of cc-ing and bcc-ing, compiling turgid slidedecks in which the projected figures for the next Q are always somehow trending up.
And above all he heard them, braying and wheedling and bossplaining on their phones, as they dressed down junior team members, sold toasters by the thousand, discussed their chances of winning seven-figure contracts, and snarked at their agencies in heated conference calls. (‘Has Carrie actually signed off on this iteration, Jay? The user experience is about as far away from elegant simplicity as it could be, it really is.’) And they did it all with unselfconscious ostentation, Rick noted, often involving the whole carriage in their drama.
He was wearing a new shirt. Out of the packet, it transpired to be so blindingly white and starched and sharply creased as to appear the very opposite of smart — like crap fancy dress in fact. (He remembered randomly that he was still someone who didn’t know what ‘diffident’ meant.)
There was a lot riding on the workshop with today’s client, a leading global provider of something something investment solutions. They reportedly had a big budget, and an appetite to do lots more if today went well – but also, at the same time, a cheerful acceptance that if nothing got done for a very long time, that didn’t really matter either. They didn’t have a clue, as far as he could see, and they were utterly unaware that Rick didn’t have a clue. They should, in short, have been the ideal client.
Except that, rather than wallow in blissful ignorance, the client had been led to believe (not least by Rick, alas) that he and his company had the knowhow to lead them out of the wilderness. They kept deferring to his judgement, terrorising him with their childlike faith in his abilities. Rick had clearly talked far too good a game at the pitch, because here he was now, trapped in a room with a load of Senior Global Something Somethings, all of whom expected to be dazzled by the strategic brilliance of a man who had never understood what strategy actually meant.
Rick wondered, and not for the first time: Do other people really approach these meetings thinking, ‘I am a powerful agent of transformation!’ and ‘Today I will be mostly smashing it!’ and ‘Time to board the Change-Train, people!’ Rather than, say: ‘Do we have to do this?’ or ‘Can’t this all please go away?’ or ‘Would you mind counting me out?’ or ‘Wish I was dead’? (Asking for a friend.)
The warm-up hadn’t gone too badly, at least. Rick got everyone to go around and share a fact about themselves that no one else in the room knew. One woman had once shared a taxi with David Beckham, another was a secret crochet fan; the Head of Something Insights revealed that he had never tried Weetabix.
They were not long into the meeting proper before an unspoken consensus emerged that the pet phrase of the gathering would be ‘To your point.’ Every workshop has a pet phrase, Rick believed, and this one was good enough to add to his elite store of meeting staples. It was right up there with ‘What does everyone else think?’ and ‘Shall we take that one off line?’ and ‘That’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’
Beginning your remarks with ‘to your point’ flattered the addressee that you thought their comment had been worth returning to and developing. It convinced the person who said it that they were a master of logic and joined-up thinking. And it flattered everyone by making it seem that the meeting was not actually just another cosmetic rehearsal of stale platitudes, but was instead a lively and creative symposium in which the powerful thoughts of great minds could be seen to develop and progress towards important, actionable conclusions.
But on top of all that, the very greatest thing about ‘to your point’ was that different people’s contributions didn’t need to connect together in any way at all:
‘I’m not sure if we know enough yet about who our clients are, or what their true pain points are.’
‘To your point… I really wish we’d stop using that teal colour for the background on our Twitter quote cards. I know it’s in the new brand palette, but it just looks a bit lurid to me.’
After lunch Rick began again with another mini warm-up. He got everyone to say whether they preferred Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, and to give reasons for their choice. All was going swimmingly till they got round to the Chief Something Officer, who insisted that she had never watched either and would rather talk about Mad Men Instead. Rick the mild-mannered socialist fumed. Honestly, he thought. It’s one rule for them and one for everyone else…
While Rick toiled with his meagre tools of war — his slides and his whiteboard markers and his blue-tacked flipchart sheets – he noticed that an entire aspirational lifestyle was popping up outside his client’s window. It was a Friday afternoon, and for some the weekend was beginning early. Bars spilled out onto terraces, and the balconies of loft-style apartments were suddenly full of loafing urbanites supping chilled prosecco as they gazed out over the children splashing with loud pleasure in the fountain of a bright new public square. The fountain boasted a sheer-flowing water feature whose metallic planes glinted infinite rainbows in the swoon and sheen of the afternoon’s unexpected sunburst. Paddling barefeet, a pair of young lovers kissed for the first time.
Around the square, slogans asked: ‘What are you thinking right now?’ and ‘What if you just took a moment?’ and ‘Isn’t life amazing?!’ A sign flashed up: ‘Giggle. Wonder. Breathe.’ In one corner, a police horse stood magnificently still, preening with proud muscularity as its officer brushed and stroked and sluiced it down. A small crowd of appreciative children and mums had gathered to enjoy this blessed moment.
Back in the room, the Post-It notes were wilting in the heat and dropping from the walls. Rick’s deck had got stuck on a slide which said only, ‘Strategy: Why → How’. It was a slide Rick had devised in a moment of insight many moons ago, but which now blinked back at him, blank and surly.
The sun beat into the room unpleasantly. Rick reflected that if he had set out to wear a scratchy, starchy shirt designed for the express purpose of showing up the starkest possible contrast between the non-sweaty and the now all-too-sweaty areas of his body, areas which of course spread out from under his arms but also now included a growing patch in his upper middle chest area plus, he could confidently surmise, a linear vertical stripe running down the centre of his back… well, this would have been that shirt.
No matter. One of the assembled clients – the Assistant Something Account Something – was now enjoying his sixth or seventh epiphany of the hour.
‘So I guess what you’re saying is that, essentially, in a sense, our strategy should, in a way, be, kind of, no-strategy?’ It was the young, eager one, the one who always tried too hard. He had got Rick out of several tight spots already that afternoon, because although he wouldn’t shut up and had no idea what he was saying, the rest of the group felt obliged to respect his input, even though the conversation had digressed and even regressed on several occasions thanks to him already.
‘To your point, that could be exactly what I’m saying,’ said Rick. Was he? He certainly liked the idea of the follow-up work from the workshop involving the development of a non-strategy. But just then his highly-attuned client sensors picked up a micro-grimace from a more senior stakeholder.
‘Or not?’ he added, hastily. ‘What does everyone think?’
It had turned into another classic flop-chart presentation*. But thankfully it was too late and too hot for anyone to care.
As he was making his way through the client’s security gate afterwards, Rick compiled a quick obituary of himself. He was a man who was born, assembled some garden furniture, and then — to your point – died.
In his bag, he still had the birthday card from his 45th. They were studiously low-key about birthdays in his office, and his had fallen on a weekend that year. He’d come in to find a card on his desk, and decided to see how long he could go without opening it. All day as it turned out; no one mentioned it at all. When eventually he did look, not long before home time, it was to discover that only three people had signed it. Out of spite, he deleted his comedy all-department thank-you email about how he was adjusting to hitting the big three-oh.
After a much-delayed journey home, during which he had to deal with three heated calls, a provocative text and six pointed emails from his boss, Rick arrived back in London to discover that Paddington was still there, gurning sarcastically at his crumpled suit and absurdly heavy laptop bag.
Next morning, at breakfast, he was taciturn and morose. His mind teetered helplessly on the hair-trigger of irritability. The children ignored him.
‘I don’t know why you bother to join us for these meals,’ said Lorna. ‘It’s obvious you’d rather be somewhere else.’
I can choose how to respond to this situation, thought Rick. It’s entirely within my power. I can be aggressive if I choose… Or I can be passive-aggressive.
He looked up, suddenly inspired. ‘Now that’s not a sentence I expected to hear today!’ he said. ‘What does everyone else think?’
* Flop-chart presentation: A presentation using pretty graphs and fancy animations to mask an absence of any real ideas or useful information.
Image via Pixabay